Wilson Leung, a Chinese-Australian graphic designer from Sydney, explores the role of visual communicators in perpetuating unethical design in his honours design project, Please Watch Your Tone. We spoke to Wilson to reflect on how the Asian identity is portrayed in visual culture, learn about the complexities of the Cantonese language, and question the misrepresentation of Chinese identities in the media of Western societies.
Please Watch Your Tone is a research-led design project that I completed for my Honours year at the University of Technology Sydney. It critiques the existence of Asian mimicry typefaces which are typefaces you might see on the “foreign look” category on DaFont.com. It questions the role that visual communicators play in outputting responsible and ethical visual culture into the world. The body of work encompasses a typeface, Jyut Sans, a website and a publication. Jyut Sans is the vehicle through which this project graphically conveys the tonal richness of Cantonese speech. Its structural components reflect the idiosyncrasies of the language and has also been designed to function as a diagrammatic system which visualises the tonal movements of the Cantonese language.
The project came about through a culmination of personal experiences and research into design. Firstly, being Chinese in Australia exposes you to a lot of interesting experiences that were the driving factor in wanting to design around the topic of Asian issues. Then when I was doing some broad research around Asian representation, I saw that a lot of visual culture represented “Chinese-ness” or “Asian-ness” through these mimicry typefaces. And these typefaces saw a particular use during the early half of the 20th century in pulp fiction comics which had a tendency to portray East Asian identities as a yellow peril threat to Western civilisation.
Cantonese is a tone language. Different words are enunciated with a tone that has to be ‘sung’ to a relative pitch. Cantonese apparently has nine tones but only six are significant enough to be defined as tones. In Cantonese, stress and intonation fall on vowels and diphthongs (vowels that combine into another sound). They are integral to Cantonese tonality with each vowel in Jyut Sans having been designed with a rising, falling and stable variant. For example, “FAN” can be pronounced at six different tones that can mean ‘divide’, ‘flour’, ‘sleep’, ‘grave’, ‘energetic’ or ‘portion’. In addition, Cantonese is often described by non-Cantonese speakers as musical, implying that the language has a rhythm and modulating pitch. However, sharp aspirated consonants like the P, T, and K sounds similar to those in English contrast the more melodic characteristics.
Jyut Sans attempts to emulate this contrast in the spoken language through elements of the letterforms. Sweeping curvature is juxtaposed by abrupt changes in width and curve direction. Furthermore the typeface has been designed to function as a graphic system which denotes tonal levels in the same way that Cantonese tonal charts do.
Unethical representation of the Asian identity
In the present day, although it isn’t used maliciously, Asian mimicry typefaces still exist as a way to ‘package’ the image and offer of experiencing the exotic East in a very one dimensional way. Ironically, it’s sometimes perpetuated by members of the Asian community. You see it all the time on Asian restaurants, Chinese and Japanese in particular. It’s self-exoticisation. But that in itself has a long history that stretches back to the Chinese community of San Francisco in the 1900s who did so as a means of survival. Asian mimicry typefaces were actually designed by non-Asian Americans in the late 1800s and became synonymous with Chinatown. Since that time, these typefaces have been used as a beacon to signal “Chinese-ness”. And no one has seemed to question if it’s okay.
These typefaces, in the context of the visual culture in which it is used, presents a linear message of Asian and particularly Chinese culture and identity. In some ways contribute to the conflation of different Asian nationalities, a problem which we are too familiar with. An area of literature in design recognises the educative force of visual culture. They are informal but ever present “lessons” that individuals learn either willingly or unconsciously. So in designing my project I wanted to challenge why these typefaces are still used, present an alternative to the status quo and provide an educational point of access to those who may not know Cantonese and those who would want to improve their existing knowledge.
A lot of visual depictions of Asian identities is still ingrained in the stereotypes of the past. And sometimes these very public stereotypical depictions are just swept under the rug and the global community seems to remain silent. (I’m going to take this time to call out some problematic examples of such) From the latest Emirates commercial featuring a bunch of Asians doing kung-fu moves, to Kendrick Lamar’s entire tour visuals appropriating Chinese kung-fu movie aesthetics and Melbourne restaurant Mr. Miyagi’s blatantly racist menus. No one has batted an eye-lid at these representations, it’s like their affects on our community aren’t significant enough to worry about. But I think times are changing and looking very optimistic. The global Asian community are slowly having their concerns heard. Take the very recent Dolce & Gabbana social media storm for example.
A big overarching influence is definitely my culture and identity. After rejecting and wrestling with the “Chinese” in my Chinese-Australian identity for so long, in the last few years of my life I’ve really come to embrace it and reconcile with my heritage. At the same time, design came into my life through my university degree and I saw how design could be used to question, comment on and advocate for issues in the world.
I would also say a huge influences are fellow designers Jihee Lee, whose design project also critiqued Asian mimicry typefaces, and Joy Li. Joy is a wonderfully kind and talented designer who was in the grade above me in my degree. It was partly through her project in 2017 and Lee’s that inspired me to use my skills to explore Asian issues I cared deeply about. She really took it to the next level in terms of using design to tackle issues of the lived Asian experience.
How to support Wilson’s future projects
Have a squiz on my website to have a listen to the individual Cantonese tones and play the mini-game to understand how tone can drastically impact the meaning of a sentence. It would be awesome if you can spread the word about the project/project website so more attention can be drawn to the issue of Asian representation and learn about Cantonese at the same time. And if you’re so inclined, I’m on Instagram so say hi! (@waishunwilson)
About the Contributor
Wilson* Leung is a graduate graphic designer from sunny Sydney. He believes in creating with purpose and often uses design to explore his culture and identity.
*Not the volleyball from Cast Away (2000) starring Tom Hanks.
View his website and portfolio here.
Check out his Instagram here.